Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Karaoke Chronicles: The Fifth Night of Russmas

I don't know how the term "dive bar" originated, but it's meaning is clear. Diving is a downward motion, to plunge below . . . but in the case of a dive bar, below what? Expectations? Societal standards? The belt? All of the above, I'm sure -- dive bars remain the one true epitome of public drunkenness, rife with dusty decor, shifty clientele, and the unavoidable old whore willing to earn her next drink by way of five minutes alone with you in the bathroom stall. I'm sure when I look up "dive bar" on Wikipedia, I'll see a picture of the TomKat Lounge in Buena Park, California. It's definitively below standard in Orange County's blossoming realm of chic nighttime lounges . . .

Which makes it above expectation for karaoke! On the butt end of a strip mall around the corner from Knott's Berry Farm, the TomKat Lounge offers nightly karaoke for a crowd of the seemingly homeless or drug addicted, with scatterings of folks like my friends and me who don't know what they're getting into. Of course, this impression is only based on a few hours' time, on a Monday night, no less, but everyone seemed so at home in the joint I'd be hard pressed they don't spend as much time there as the karaoke itself. The K.J. we experienced -- a Frank Zappa lookalike, if he'd lived to host karaoke nowadays -- facilitated this circus with expert precision and plenty of positive reinforcement. "Great job! Wasn't that a good job? Give 'im a hand, everyone!" His singing "Dirty Deeds" was an excellent compliment to the whole adventure.

I sang three songs:

"Straight from the Heart" -- Bryan Adams
"Desperado" -- The Eagles*
"Heat of the Night" -- Bryan Adams

That first Bryan Adams tune (my second of Russmas) was appropriate in the context of other, slower songs sung by this wayward group, with lyrics betraying feelings of regret or reflections of a life not yet fulfilled. "Heat of the Night" was pure guilty pleasure, one of Adams' most under-appreciated songs, yet rich in vivid urban imagery and paranoia. I'm plenty of the patrons would've related, had they not stepped out for smoke.

I should comment on my friend Stephanie's rendition of "When He Cheats," a tune that has become the scorned woman's karaoke anthem. I should examine why the lyrics, sans catchy country twangs, are really just a list of felony charges, glamorized by righteous rage and revenge. I should really make an effort to explain why, if a man sang a similar song, he'd be dubbed either a whiny baby or a pompous pig. But I won't. Because I'm the kind of gentleman that insists his girlfriend and one of his best friends that is a girl join him in a place like the TomKat Lounge on a Monday night.

Regarding the song choice in general, the TomKat Lounge boasts four thick binders of tunes, lists of both artists and songs categorized A-M and N-Z, with some 1400 pages per book. At first I wondered if there was a song I couldn't find in the batch, but I quickly realized that the choices were most likely comparable to any other venue -- the TomKat just has more multiple versions of any given song. In contrast, while Elvis secured nearly fourteen pages, the Beatles barely cleared two. I don't know how many times I've started a sentence like this, but, if I were a K.J., I'd streamline my books to the song's artist and title only, leaving whatever version I choose to play up to me. I know karaoke aficionados prefer different incarnations of songs, some with backing tracks or better sound quality, but these people are so advanced in their karaoke commitment that they probably don't need the binders anyone. A newbie faced with literally 2800 pages of songs to choose from? The radio barely plays a top 40! I'd throw in the towel before my fifteen minutes of fame ever began.

Still, this criticism comes in the context of having experienced four karaoke venues consecutively, and a place like the TomKat Lounge, everyone has a little burden to bear aside from lugging that binder to their table. I've overcome my prejudice of people in establishments like that -- if everyone's buying their own drinks and enjoying the karaoke, who cares where they come from, what they look like? Heck, the only real difference between the patrons of a dive bar and those with their heads supposedly above water at Orange County's more prestigious drinkeries is that the former wear their dirt on their sleeves. Everybody else is just better at hiding it. Just beware . . . if these meek folks are truly destined to inherent the earth, Frank Zappa might call your name to sing next.

* When I was a kid, my family and I went to a fair -- maybe a county fair, I don't remember -- in Connecticut where people could pay a few bucks, sing a song in a sound booth, and take the cassette tape home. (A cassette tape is like a CD stretched out between two tony rolls in a convenient little cartridge.) I was five or six years old and sang "Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees," and with my little lisp at the time, it's hilarious to hear now: "Here we come, walking down the stweet . . .!" My dad recorded "Desperado," and the choice resonated with me, his talents as a singer impressed me, even if he was unhappy with the performance, as I remember. My dad has had quite a few karaoke adventures of his own -- it runs in the family. For any desperado, that has to be heartening.

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